By ERIC PLUMMER
CLARK FORK — Former Detroit Lion great Alex Karras, a NFL defensive tackle who made the 1960s all-decade team and later went on to act, one said toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles.
You have to have some toughness about you to ever strap on a football helmet, from the old leather helmets to suspension helmets to today’s high tech lids.
But you had to have a little extra grit about you to play football for Clark Fork in the early 1960s.
How tough was it back then? Take a look at the picture with this story for a quick answer. And that wasn’t even the worst field the temporarily red-clad Wampus Cats played on in 1962, when the program re-emerged after being dormant for years after the war.
Longtime Clark Fork resident Lewis Speelmon played on that 1962 team. Lewis’s father Melvin Speelmon Sr. played in the 1930s, and his son Melvin Speelmon Jr. played in the early ’90s, make it three generations of Speelmons donning the pads for the Wampus Cats.
Lewis remembers the field well, and not for the best of reasons. He was asked if there were any injuries.
“Of course. Broken collarbones, all kinds of different things happened on that hard surface,” he recalled. “For us, we didn’t really know any different.”
The head coach of the team was Cal Wearly, and the quarterback on the team was Tom Shields, who later served a stint as mayor of Clark Fork, which ended eight years ago.
The normally blue and yellow Wampus Cats were forced to play in red uniforms for a stint, before they could buy their own.
“It was the first time we had a football team in years,” remembered Shields. “Noxon was giving up their program, and we bought their used gear. They were the Red Devils, and for a few years we had red uniforms.”
Shields said football was new to everybody, and all but one boy in the entire school came out for the team. They played eight man back then, just like today, but also faced the likes of Priest River and Lakeland.
While the picture shows mud, rocks and gravel, luckily it was only in one corner of the field.
“The south end of the field was good, it had a lot of grass,” described Shields. “The goal posts were right by the highway. If you kicked a field goal, and I can’t remember anyone trying, it would go on the highway.”
Lewis and brother Doug Speelmon, as well as current Clark Fork Jr. High basketball coach George Thornton, were among the Wampus Cats playing alongside Shields that still remain in the area.
Lewis Speelmon remembers spreading topsoil on the field in 1962, the same year the World’s Fair was in Seattle, and he would later coach there before the team moved to the current field, ultra-lush by comparison, which was built in the 1980s.
But if you think Clark Fork had the worst field in North Idaho at the time, think again.
“Kootenai’s field was all sand,” said Speelmon. “I can still remember the yellow jackets in that sand. I got stung a few times.”
Pat Shields, Tom’s younger brother, is the blurry kid in the foreground of the photo. While he moved to Alaska in the 1980s, he will always consider Clark Fork home.
By the time he was old enough to suit up for the Wampus Cats in the 1970s, they were blue and yellow again, and most of the mud was covered in grass. Sort of.
“There still was a time or two, though, where you didn’t want to get tackled in that corner of the field due to the gravel and deep mud-puddle that resided there. We players used to joke that you could drown in the middle of a dog pile in that corner of the field,” said Pat Shields, tipping his hat to the players from that era. “I have long admired, actually been in awe of, the players of yesteryear who played in such conditions.”